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'We All Lost A Year': Boston Attys Return To Changed Hub

By Chris Villani · February 19, 2021, 3:26 PM EST

Maria Durant, the managing partner of Hogan Lovells in Boston, has been working from the firm's home in the city's financial district just about every day since offices were allowed to reopen.

The office is only 20% full on a good day. Everyone, including administrative staff, has their own enclosed workspace. In common areas, masks are a must. Hallways are one way only, and only one person at a time is allowed in a restroom.

Things look a lot different outside the 30-floor high-rise as well. On a recent walk through Downtown Crossing, Durant said the typically bustling neighborhood — a retail and restaurant hub near the bright lights of the theater district — was a shell of its former self.

"It's really quiet and it's very sad," Durant said. "I worry for the businesses that rely upon the offices being open."

With COVID-19 case counts beginning to wane and vaccines bringing hope for a return to normal, Boston-area attorneys are preparing to go back to their offices more often and in larger numbers. But the toll of the past year has brought long-term changes to the practice of law, the development of younger associates who depend on interaction in the office, and the businesses that once populated Boston's bustling office hubs.

Working from home does have its benefits, including avoiding a time-consuming commute and getting to wear sweatpants during depositions.

"I have three kids who are school-age, my spouse works as well and life is busy," Ed Zacharias, the Boston managing partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP, told Law360. "The sort of cost-benefit analysis of when you know you have obligations at a personal level and you can manage them both without spending time in traffic or committing or running out to the office, I think those are decisions we are all going to be making going forward."

But the professional cost, experienced attorneys say, is being borne most heavily by greener lawyers.

"There are benefits to the accidental three-dimensional encounter with someone who you work with but don't have a reason to talk to," said Josh Davis of Goulston & Storrs PC. "The loss of the unintentional encounter has a price, and I think the price is probably bigger for people who are newer to an organization, because those are the moments that build the relationships and build up across time."

"We have all lost a year of our life for community-building," Davis added. "One of the surprises of the pandemic is people have learned you can lawyer from home meaningfully, but there are real questions about what the cultural costs of that are."

Firms have done their best to foster unity and develop culture through Zoom cocktail or mocktail hours and other virtual events. But those are a poor facsimile of the water cooler or coffee machine interactions that have been eliminated by the work-from-home shift, some attorneys say.

"I am of the school of thought that the best training we offer our associates to develop substantively is being with them and being down the hall," Zacharias said. "I think there is a component of that you cannot replicate at home."

As much as many attorneys may have enjoyed the relative freedom and flexibility of working from home, the need to recreate in-person collaboration between team members, especially for newer attorneys, will likely drive more people back to the office once it is safe.

And while many firms reported profits and growth during the pandemic, they have also realized they can operate more leanly.

"I think most law firms have discovered ... staffing models needed to be adjusted from what the legal industry has known historically, and the broader point is real estate needs are now very different," said Jonathan Handler of Day Pitney LLP.

As for when attorneys will be back in the office en masse, few firms had specific dates in mind.

Durant said Hogan Lovells — which is being advised by former acting commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Stephen Ostroff — is staying mostly remote through May, but will reassess based on the public health data as that date nears.

Stephen Zubiago, CEO and managing partner of Nixon Peabody LLP, said the firm is sticking with a "by appointment" approach to office visits at least through July 4.

"We've been able to effectively serve our clients and stay connected over the past year, but we know many of our people are eager for the normalcy and familiarity of returning to our offices on a more regular basis, myself included," Zubiago said.

Handler said there had been some talk about coming back midyear, but he feels it may not be until at least Labor Day for most firms. Even when offices are fully reopened, he said he could envision not going in five days per week.

Zacharias said McDermott is hoping for a more robust office presence by the fourth quarter of 2021, but quickly added that some aspect of remote work is here to stay.

Goulston & Storrs' Davis said he will likely go back to the office full-time when it's safe to do so, but pointed out the many questions still lingering even as the U.S. approaches a full year in the shadow of COVID-19.

Firms may require attorneys to be vaccinated before they are allowed to return. Davis, an employment lawyer, said work-from-home may be a reasonable accommodation for those who are allowed an exception to vaccine requirements. But even then, he said, it's unclear what precautions, if any, would be required once a meaningful percentage of the population has been vaccinated.

"If I am in a room with 10 people, and all of us have had two vaccine shots, do we wear masks? Do we worry about distance?" Davis said. "I suspect the answer to that is at some point no, but I don't know that."

And those who do come back to the office in 2021, including in Boston, will find life in the city does not look like it did more than a year ago.

"People might not be eager to work downtown when it turns out the restaurants they had lunch at disappeared," Handler said.

Another issue is the commute, with Massachusetts slashing public transit schedules amid plummeting ridership. Handler noted it's unclear if service will be restored before there is clear demand for it.

Hogan Lovells' Durant said she will keep coming into the office every day, and that she has enjoyed being able to do so with a fraction of the rush-hour traffic she was used to in the pre-pandemic days. She said she's looking forward to welcoming back more of her colleagues, but as her walk through downtown Boston made clear, many aspects of life may not be what they remembered.

"Things will look a lot different," Durant said. "I do not expect the workplace to go back to what it was on March 11, 2020."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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